the house tom pruitt lived in all his life
By way of some email correspondence with Sarah Bryan, editor of Old Time Herald, I began to see that we see an awful lot alike. She's a folklorist interested in traditional music and culture from the varieties of early American cultures unto today when it's homogenized by television and radio. Though I'd venture that if the corporate influence of pop culture were to wane, the traditional music would come forward again. It's not that traditional music is gone just because it's rarely on tv except for the RFD channel. I discovered by insight from correspondence with Sarah that I have been a folklorist the entire time I've lived in the mountains. I've not been going by folklore standards with tape recorders and making notes, reading books. I've got my knowledge of the old-time ways from people I have known, people I've listened to for hours telling me their lives. This recent article I wrote for Old Time Herald on bluegrass coming to the mountains, specifically Alleghany County and fiddler Howard Joines, is all from what is called first-hand information, from the people involved. First-hand is evidently the best source, though I wasn't so sure while trying to put things together from different people's memories of their experience. In the writing, I discovered a few times that I'd got conflicting information from different sources that actually cancelled each other. I left those kinds of ambiguities out of it.
It's like a time recently two different men I know were at odds with each other, both telling me the same story, each saying the other was lying. I was to make a decision as a result of what they'd told me. They cancelled each other out and I was left with nothing to go by for decision making. I just told myself, it's their problem, not mine. In the writing, I did not want to put in any inaccuracies. I'm sure there are some, because, like I said, it's first-hand information, subject to imperfect memory, and a culture that didn't think in left-brain ways of details and facts. In a picture I found of Junior Maxwell with his first bluegrass band, The Little River Boys, I could guess the date of the photo better by the clothes, ties, haircuts and the squeegee lines on a Fifties b&w polaroid print, than Junior could guess from memory. He remembered where it was taken, Johnson City, Tennessee, backstage at a bluegrass show, but he had no recollection of when. In the past. For Junior the past was nothing. Only the present mattered to him and the future; the future is where the present is going. He gave no importance to anything in the past. In that way he was not a good source for information about dates. He could remember plenty about making music with other musicians, how they played in their particular styles. It was from Junior I learned the principles mountain musicians live by.
I didn't know anybody in my first months in the mountains. I'd go to town to the laundromat, gas station, bank and grocery store, a stranger in a culture where people don't see anybody they don't know. In the laundromat people stared at me like I was a television. If I spoke to one, they continued to stare at me. It's perfectly natural to them; televisions speak, but you don't speak back. I wanted to know other people like me who came to the mountains from an urban environment, but there weren't many in the late 1970s, and the ones that were here from other places didn't want to know anybody from a city. They were like Americans in Europe; they only want to see natives, not Americans. So in London I meet an American and I'm regarded in the way, spoiling the view. My neighbor Tom Pruitt I visited regularly. He told me the story of his life over fourteen years. I first knew him when he was 72 and he died when he was 86. The odd part about Tom dying is that it seemed like Tom was immortal, would always be the same age and would never die. Then he did. His brother Millard, the Regular Baptist preacher, I knew also for 14 years. I heard him preach often and listened to the story of his life. They were beautiful stories. Both of them went to school in my house.
Going to a Regular Baptist church for fourteen years as an active member taught me a great deal about mountain old-time religion and a very great deal about mountain culture. I wanted to learn as much as I could about mountain culture, because it was the home I had chosen for myself. There was a time in the late 1980s I had the money to move away from here and go someplace where I could make a better living, get paid better and consequently have more living expenses someplace else. Here, we don't make much, but it doesn't (didn't used to) cost so much to live here, either. Like when you cut your own firewood, that saves a lot on the winter's heating bill. All it costs in money is chainsaw gas and gas for the truck hauling the wood from where I cut it someplace nearby to the house. Negligible expense. Good heat all winter. It is physically demanding hauling firewood in from the woodpile maybe three times a day, sometimes four, in every weather; snow, wind, ice, bitter cold. That's part of it. I wanted to live elemental, with the elements, with the cold of winter, the heat of summer, the rain, the snow, the wind, the storms, the sunshine, the sky. I never wanted my house air-tight. I wanted to live in a way that respected the ways the old-time people lived. I don't want to be too warm in winter. I want to feel the winter. I wanted to acclimatize myself to the weather as it is in the mountains, to exist with the weather instead of against it. I wanted to share that with the people of the old ways. I was from a different world and aimed to learn mountain culture, how to get around in it, be comfortable in it, be at home in it.
I've studied the ways of these mountains so long that it's become part of who I am. The culture of these mountains is my ongoing interest. I didn't want to read Appalachian studies books, though I know they'd be interesting, I wanted to get my knowledge from people who live in the culture so intimately they don't know it's a culture. Over 36 years in the mountains I have known several people to listen to at length learning the story of their lives and their philosophies of living in this world. I never made notes, never used a recording device, never wrote anything down of the hundreds of stories I have forgotten. I wanted to incorporate into myself what I learned from the people I knew. I wanted what I learned from them to seep into who I am and educate who I am to the beauty of mountain culture. I felt like making notes and writing about the people around me dampened what I learned from the different ones I knew, devalued it. It was only real when what was spoken to me was mine only. I didn't need to be writing about a culture I knew nothing about. It didn't feel right recording anybody talking or a preacher preaching. Plenty of people did put cassette recorders at the pulpit to record the sermons. For me, that took the spirit out of the encounter. I asked Junior Maxwell once if I could get him to answer questions on tape about fiddler Art Wooten. Nope. Don't even think about it.
I've lived my life in these mountains as a folklorist all the way along. I've been at it so long that folklorist has become my way of thinking. I never lose interest in anything to do with mountain culture. Still, I have not read books. My friend Cynthia is teaching an Appalachian Studies course and has several books that look really good, but they don't appeal to me. I want mine from the people themselves. I want to know the mountain people as my friends, as people I have heart connections with in real, honest ways. In vivo, not in vitro. Subjective, not objective. I came to the mountains on my spiritual path and have walked my path the entire time in these mountains among mountain people. I have learned the value of being who you are under all circumstances. I understand the value of not ratting on anyone for any reason. I understand the value of helping neighbors who need help. I understand the music well enough to write about it with some comprehension, able to pass my understanding to others new to the music. I've learned quite a lot from the people I've known over the last half of my life. It is in these mountains, the latter half of my life, that I have found love in my heart. All my associations with these mountains, the culture, the people, the music, are in a loving vein. It is in these mountains where God opened my heart and brought me to life. I'm grateful to all the mountain people I know for allowing me into their lives.
The bridge between us is respect. My respect for mountain people is automatic. I know the people and the culture well enough by now that I can't help but respect everyone I know and everybody new I meet. My respect allows me entrance to a world of people I find endlessly fascinating. I take the dark side with the light side and see them as one interwoven whole. I don't find somebody who has been in prison fifteen years any less valid a human being than somebody who goes to church regularly. We're all different kinds of people. In the mountains, people know that and receive everyone as who they are, not in relation to a standard of conformity that everybody is "supposed to" adhere to in order to be acceptable, except in some circles. In the mountains, that you exist is acceptable. If you are straight-on who you are, that is all the more acceptable. I was thinking earlier today how wonderful it is that the sweetness of the South is something nobody outside the South ever gets. In like manner, the sweetness of mountain culture is only known from the inside, cannot be seen from the outside. I'm grateful to God from the core of my heart for landing my parachute in Alleghany County. I know the sweetness of mountain culture well enough by now that I can't live without it. I have incorporated it into my soul, the place where I'm most happy I found mountain culture. I can't say my time here has been smooth and straight-ahead as Bonneville Salt Flats. I would never have wanted it to be. I love the hills. I love the winding curves in all the roads. Driving in the mountains has a good flow about it when you find the flow. It doesn't take long in years.